Monday, August 21, 2006

Building Democracy in Myanmar

This week, in the sideline of the five-day meeting starting Monday between Southeast Asian ministers in Malaysia to put plans for a European-style single market, an Asean Economic Community, by 2015 on the fast track, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also plan to sign a pact to facilitate trade and investment with the United States -- a step closer to a free trade agreement that signals stronger linkages with ASEAN’s number 1 trading partner.

The proposed pact will be called a “trade and investment facilitation arrangement”, a cooperation pact that is less formal than an agreement. Foreign ministers from ASEAN countries will sign the pact and the US Trade Representative, Susan Schwab, will represent the US government. Downplaying the significance of the wording, ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said that it was a flexible arrangement to overcome any potential US congressional opposition.

Since Washington imposes sanctions on Myanmar, one of the members of ASEAN, an informal arrangement like this does not require congressional approval to be operative. The decision to call the pact as an arrangement is, according to Ong, a tactical move to expedite the process. The arrangement will enable deeper business dealings between the US and all the members of ASEAN, including Myanmar, without Washington having first to lift any sanction imposed on one of ASEAN’s member state.

This proposed trade pact should be a welcome relief for ASEAN as an organization. The pact should allow the opening up of new opportunities in business and economic engagement between the two sides as well as an opening tactic to engage Myanmar actively. It is an open secret that the main reason for the EU or the US reluctance to engage ASEAN actively is Myanmar’s human right record and its lack of democracy. At the same time, the stubbornness of the military junta in Myanmar to improve the local situation added the situation from bad to worse.

The recent meeting of ASEAN ministers in Bali, Indonesia, to discuss about Myanmar’s problem failed to yield into any meaningful results. Pressures to Yangon by prominent members of ASEAN like Indonesia and Malaysia to show concrete steps towards democracy seem to have entered deaf ears in which Yangon only gave empty promises and no realistic steps have been taken so far. It even extended the house arrest term of Myanmar’s democratic leader, Aung San Su Kyi that should have been released this year.

This situation is definitely frustrating for other ASEAN member states. ASEAN as an organization wants to move forward but one of its members is stubborn enough not to be a part of the democratic setup in which a new ASEAN is based upon. If the situation continues, it will only add to more struggles and difficulties for ASEAN to strengthen its economic prowess and counter the increasing competition from the rising giants China and India.

How to clear, or at least reduce, this hurdle? Should ASEAN isolate Myanmar? Or should ASEAN engage Myanmar more actively to create a genuine impression about ASEAN’s intention to build a better situation in the region?

It is a tricky situation as long as democracy and human right are concern. Stubbornness shown by Myanmar’s military ruler to show concrete steps towards democracy is understandable. Relinquishing status quo is just like giving up our own lives. No body wants to do that, nor Yangon wants to relinquish its strict control over Myanmar people. At the same time Yangon seems to also see in some members of ASEAN the lack of democratic practice but no body seems to bother about it or tend to be apologetic about it. Look at Singapore or Malaysia for example.

Pressurizing Myanmar to show concrete steps towards democracy and to improve its human right records is like pressurizing Singapore or Malaysia to abandon its strict control over people’s basic rights and transform itself wholeheartedly towards liberal democracy in which people are free to practice their basic rights such as freedom of speech and expression. The recent effort by Malaysian government to control the free flow of blog, or citizen media, is a clear example of state’s effort to restrict its citizens’ right of freedom of speech and expression.

In my opinion, the most realistic way to clear, or at least reduce the Myanmar problem in ASEAN is by engaging it more actively and show more genuine efforts towards working together to improve democratic practice in Myanmar and in all other ASEAN member countries. It is not only Myanmar that needs to practice democracy but all members of ASEAN should be a part of a real democracy in which people are free to exercise their basic rights. Isolating Myanmar should be avoided at all cost. Because an isolation approach will only result in the opposite: Myanmar will fall into the hands of those countries that oppose the concept of democracy and respect of human rights.

Thus the decision by ASEAN and the US to sign a trade pact “arrangement” so as to allow all members of ASEAN to be a part of it is surely a positive “tactical move to expedite the process” towards democracy and improving human right record in Myanmar. It will be an important step towards establishing greater understanding among ASEAN member states, and the US in this case, towards engaging Myanmar more actively. If India, the world largest democracy, is willing to engage Myanmar actively as an effort to introduce democracy there, why ASEAN can’t do the same? Politics of isolation is doomed to fail but politics of engagement will flourish into a better future.

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